Vera Takes a Ride and, Church Going, Wonders What Future the Past Will Hold

I went for a long bicycle ride this morning all alone. I had done no work but was seized with the wandering spirit. I rode down Ashwood Dale as far as Topley Pike, & then round King Sterndale, where I paused for a moment or two inside the quaint little church on the top of the hill. As I rode I went on thinking, thinking, about the soul and suffering & power…

Among my other thoughts one stood out very clear—that there was only one person I would rather be with in such a mood & on such a morning than be solitary as I was–and he I may never more have again to be with me. It was such a morning as he would have loved. The shadows were very blue lying across the clear river bed, and the sound of the waters in the valley vibrated with all the living harmony of spring…

Vera Brittain usually plays the role here–with her own happy acquiescence–of the Young Intellectual. Or, if she’s the Young Romantic instead, it’s a brainy, German-inflected Romanticism. But today she is pedaling the heartland, powering uphill for a glimpse ahead toward Philip Larkin before dipping back down into the most familiarly English pastoral valleys.

Ah, but back to town soon enough.

I went to St. John’s Church to-night to hear Stainer’s Crucifixion given by the choir. I did not much notice whether they did it well or badly, for the music took my thoughts far away into Uppingham Chapel. I could almost hear that multitude of boys singing their Founder’s Hymn “O Merciful & Holy”, which always gave me a queer choked feeling as if I wanted to cry. Then I thought of last summer when on the Sunday morning we sat almost alone after chapel was over, listening to the organ recital, & Roland came down from the choir-stalls & sat beside me. I thought of the stern Headmaster standing in the chancel–of his last speech to his boys before the War, undreamed of then but impending–“If a man is of no use to his country, he is better dead.” I saw again the stone memorials on the chapel walls, commemorating those who had been of use to their country, & had fallen in South Africa or other less noted fields, and thought how many more I should see if ever I enter that Chapel again. I wonder where they will inscribe Roland’s name, if… Think of him to-night & after! — Yes, & forever more![1]

We have many reasons to follow Vera Brittain–she’s a great writer, her war experiences are of great interest, her days are lavishly recorded, her letters preserved–but this, I realize, is another. She has a historian’s instincts.

Perhaps some would read the above as demonstrating how inevitable the turn to memoir was, and I am admittedly preoccupied with how history comes to be written, and might see history where there is only reflection, memory, or recall… but no, this is history. It’s not simply that Brittain wants to reminiscence and dwell; she looks back in order to choose an interpretation of the present.

My definition of history, remember, is not “what happened,” or even “a factually accurate narrative about what happened.” Rather, it’s “a written narrative that seeks to explain the past.” Which is a sub-category of literature, not science–although, yes, generally speaking there is a presumption that the narrative is “true,” or at least not consciously fictional.

And Vera Brittain’s memoir will indeed be a fairly reliable and careful account of the past–but that’s not all its value. I didn’t claim that Brittain is a good rationalist historian, and I’m glad she isn’t. She’s a romantic historian, by temperament, especially now. She sits in chapel, today, a century back, thinking of another chapel, and fixing today in historical context: today is both a chapter in the story of her love of Roland, begun a year before, and a point which will need to be part of a future story. Is it to be Romance, tending toward the happy endings of comedy? Or is it to be a tragedy, and his name inscribed on the chapel wall?


References and Footnotes

  1. Chronicle of Youth, 169.

Brooke Confronts the Sphinx; Goodbye to Buffalo Bill; Farewell From Roland; Kipling Takes To Bath

Big news in the Royal Welch. Captain Stockwell–Frank Richards‘s hated but half-respected “Buffalo Bill”–transferred today to the 1st Battalion of his regiment. That Richards’s opinion was not unrepresentative of what the battalion’s officers thought is suggested by the way his parting is recorded in Dr. Dunn’s semi-official history of the 2nd Battalion. (That wishful thinking informs our close reading of non-complex texts is recorded in my hope that the second sentence is not simply a chronicle artifact but a beautiful fictional liberty–a comment on Stockwell’s ugly, explosive personality.)

March 30th.–Stockwell’s transfer to the 1st Battalion deprived this Battalion of one of its strongest personalities. A shelling of the left of our line did no damage.[1]

No damage… But here’s a good moment for one of Richards’s undated tales of Buffalo Bill. This involved his obsession with a scheme to train a dog to haul equipment and supplies in a small cart–a common feature, actually, of Belgian army units.

He appointed a man to take charge of the dog, whom we afterwards called the Dog-Major, on the lines of the Goat-Major, the lance-corporal who has charge of the Regimental Goat. he told this man he would hold him responsible for the dog’s safety. The idea was alright but the dog had other ideas…

A tale of slapstick dog-headedness follows, as Richards spends much of the night chasing the dog and carrying his load. The Dog-Major refused Richards’ offer to bayonet the wayward animal and blame it on a shell. But after several more nights of this, with different soldiers tasked to chase the unhelpful dog, assaults on the sandbagged kennel are made in earnest. Buffalo Bill was furious at the frustration of his scheme, but it was effectively spoiled when the cart was destroyed.

When Buffalo Bill lefts us, the dog stayed with the Company, but never did no more work. He got used to shells and rifle grenades when they were coming over, and it was very funny to see him flatten his body against the wall of a trench when he heard the whine of a shell… We all got to like the dog which used to go in and out of the line with us.

As for Buffalo Bill, Richards draws on the wit of one of his comrades:

Buffalo Bill was a great soldier and a great bully. The man who believed in the transmigration of souls used to say that Buffalo Bill had only had two existences on this earth before the present one. In one he had been a great general and in the other a great slave-driver… he had no doubt that Buffalo Bill in his next existence would be a bloody roaring Bengal tiger.[2]


Roland Leighton wrote to Vera Brittain today, with apparently definitive news:

Maldon, 30 March 1915

…we have received our final orders now; we start tomorrow evening at 6.30 from here. When exactly we shall get to France is uncertain, as troops are sometimes kept at the docks for as long as 48 hours. On the other hand we may be in France for breakfast on Thursday.

I am terribly busy at present… This is just a hurried note to catch the post. Think of me tomorrow night—and after. I can hardly realise that in a very few hours I may be in a trench.[3]


You might love Kipling or you might despise Kipling, but you are best advised, here, to enjoy Kipling very much, stand in awe of some aspects of his talent, and reserve serious… reservations about his politics and propaganda. The light verse, the stories, the stuff for children, even some of the tub-thumping are skillful things, and I confess to fondness for a lot of it, even reading it on to the next generation, despite the heavy toll of pedantic asides about colonialism and the racial attitudes of bygone eras. And as regular readers know, I’m drawing quite a bit on his sober, perceptive history of the Irish Guards.

So here’s a different Kipling. Today he wrote a fond letter to his only son John, the myopic Irish Guardsman in training. A gentle, chummily obnoxious letter about being stuck in not-quite-Jane-Austen’s Bath, where they have gone because of Caroline (wife of Rudyard, mother of John) Kipling’s ailments.[4]

Bath Spa Hotel, / Bath. / Mar. 30.1915 / 6: p.m. (the sun shining hard)

Dear Old Man,

This is a rummy place–a sort of mixture of Madeira, the South of France, bits of Italy and Bournemouth all tumbled into a hollow between hills and populated with invalids and soldiers. The town is full of soldiers–the 10th Devons have their headquarters in one of the most fashionable streets and what used to be elegant private houses now bustle with privates and great coats and rifles. They are going to have inter-Regimental sports in a few days.

This explained the spectacle I saw this morning of she perspiring privates in obviously civilian knickers chasing round one of the squares hounded on by a long corporal while the cooks of a battalion camped in one of the parks hung over the railings and criticized their action. I believe there is some artillery here too; though I haven’t come across it yet…

Always judge a parent’s interest in seeing their adult children by the lengths they are willing to go to arrange transport:

We expect to have the car over by Friday morning, with the new man to drive; so if by any chance you can get to us for Saturday we might be able to go for a little run about the country. It’s a pretty part of the world. You had better look up the A.B.C. and see how the trains go. There is one which gives you your lunch aboard–a most useful train and there is a splendid one (we took it) at 4:15 from Paddington which comes on without a stop, getting here at 6.6. There are also good trains in between–one at about 3. o’clock I believe but if you miss the lunch train you will find the 4:15 will give you tea…

We haven’t met any one we know yet but I expect that experience will not be long delayed. The town clerk is coming to call. God knows why. It makes me feel as though I were a deserter or a defaulting debtor. The grub here is good and the rooms are beautifully clean and comfy and as the hotel really does stand in its own ground (see advts) one feels decently secluded.

There’s a prep-school at the back of us–up the hill side, which moved us nearly to tears. Two kids began playing golf with cleeks. It ended in a hockey match and a scuffle – precisely as it would have done with you and me not so long ago.

Best love from us all.

Ever your



Julian Grenfell is twenty-seven years old today, a fact which he celebrated by abstaining from diary and letters alike.


And Rupert Brooke? He’s one-upping all of our dedicated cathedral-goers with the ultimate exercise in touristic architectural appreciation. Brooke, Oc Asquith and Patrick Shaw-Stewart, on leave from their duties at Port Said,  took the train to Cairo and from there–joined by resident British aristocrats, including the inimitable Aubrey Herbert (the very fellow who played dress-up Guardsman in September–more on him anon) and his wife Mary–they drove to see the Sphinx and the Pyramids. There was a camel ride and a donkey ride, and then back to one of Cairo’s best hotels.


References and Footnotes

  1. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 129.
  2. Old Soldiers Never Die, 87-93.
  3. Letters from a Lost Generation, 65.
  4. The fraught marriage, which was both nasty and a thing become very much nastier indeed in the hands of literary biographers, is not something I know enough about to want to tangle with.
  5. The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, IV, 292-3.

Vera Brittain on Body and Soul; Lady Feilding on the Active Life; Morgan Crofton Anticipates a Scolding for the Village Cat

We’ve had a lot of Vera Brittain‘s febrile meditations, lately, and I was going to skip this one–mankind, soul, aspiration, idealism, the shadow of death on all sides, the soul’s impulse of growth, Eternal Life, etc.–but there is new element which enters now, with surprising frankness (and an unsurprising lack of actual impact on the Elevated Spiritual Tone).

…So, searching for Truth with Truth, that vast complex Being I call my soul will grow, & be strong, supreme over circumstance & suffering & Time & Age & Death–& by it the whole Universe shall rise.

I wonder if I have really learnt something, by these thoughts which the great new element in my life has stirred in me. If I have learnt anything it is love of Roland Leighton that has taught it to me. Strange–what it may be, this sexual love, of which–in its highest forms–the physical element is only the external sign of that which runs through soul & spirit too–part of the Everlasting Truth itself. I must learn to love more & more–I can never love enough.[1]


Well, that provokes another easy juxtaposition between the young woman at Oxford (fine–Buxton, for the Easter holiday) and the young woman in Belgium. Lady Dorothie Feilding:

Monday Fumes [29 March]
Father dear

Dr Munro is going back to England & I am asking him to post this scrawl. I had started writing you a real letter only they started shelling us with fat ones simultaneously, luckily not much damage.

Two days ago we, had a ghastly morning here. People just blown to smithereens & lots of wounded.

The Corps is going on just the same without Munro & the Belgians & the Mission both say we may go on just the same as ever. That is to say the women.

Thank God for that anyway. I just don’t know what I should have done just now if I had had to chuck the active-job & go & sit at home & twiddle one’s thumbs & think. I honestly don’t think I could bear it & ever so grateful that for the present at any rate the English Mission will sanction my working on the ambulances…

Oh Father when is this devilish war going on? It’s so awful.

Munro is going now. I wish I could write you a real letter. I am smothered in oil having been under the car greasing it all the afternoon.

God bless you–do write me please

Yr loving Diddles[2]


Sir Morgan Crofton, so far our most valuable humorist-at-the-front, has a nice acerbic take, today, a century back, on the foolishness of old-fashioned regular army inspections and the ponderous inanity of the chain of command, which resembles the nervous system of a gargantuan but primitive animal, sending back responses to its most distant limbs long after the stimulus has become irrelevant.

At 9.30 the Regiment paraded and marched to an outlying field formed up en masse for an inspection by General Kavanagh. After shivering in the icy blast for about 2 hours we returned to billets, somewhat warmed by the heated comments which were showered on us by the irate brigadier. His chief complaint was about the horses. But it is impossible to get the appearance customary in England, where warm stables, easy work and plenty of food are the conditions which prevail. Here the horses have been standing in draughty barns for over four months, surviving despite insufficient food.

However, the rebuke will filter down through the Regiment, everyone damning the next person junior to him, so in the end the village cat will certainly get it in the neck as being entirely responsible for this deplorable state of affairs.[3]


Lastly, the 1/5th Gloucestershires (Territorial) marched away from their training base at Chelmsford today, entraining for Folkstone and embarking the same evening for France. Among them was the ex-lawyer and poet F.W. Harvey, who had joined up, along with two of his brothers, on August 8th. His best friend Ivor Gurney, lately enlisted in the 2/5th Gloucestershires, will arrive in Chelmsford in a few days, just too late to bid Harvey farewell.


References and Footnotes

  1. Chronicle of Youth, 168.
  2. Lady Under Fire, 56.
  3. Massacre of the Innocents, 183.

Vera Brittain Discusses Brother and Lover; Edward Thomas Tells a Tale

Still home in Buxton, Vera Brittain realizes–perhaps amusingly belatedly–that declaring your brother’s best friend to be your soul mate may cause complications.

Sunday March 28th

Edward & I went for a long walk in the afternoon. I talked first about the war & the way our souls grow by it, then about Roland. Roland was wrong in thinking that Edward did not approve of him; Edward feels an affection & admiration for him which he has never realised. He says Roland is a person one can be quite sure of, and trust absolutely. He was glad of what had arisen between Roland & me–partly for its own sake–partly because it would assist him in keeping Roland’s friendship. He said he always had foreseen we might care for one another ever since we first met & had been so interested in one another—in fact he had hoped it might happen.

I had a letter from Roland this morning–written on Friday evening…[1]

To which she promptly responded:

Buxton, 28 March 1915

When your telegram came yesterday & your letter this morning I was so sorry I had not written for your birthday, even though all I could have wished for it was conveyed, though perhaps unexpressed, in the letter before. I know you knew it was not because I had forgotten or was not thinking of you all day, but I had not the least idea whether you had gone or not, I am sending you the conventional wish now—which I will not express in the conventional words since they have acquired a commonplace meaning, and could never represent my passionate desire for the wish to be fulfilled…

Yes, yes, you’re very smart, and your love is like no other love that has been loved before. Pray continue…

I have just been for a long walk with Edward. He said you had said little or nothing to him about me, but in spite of this I talked about you…

You are wrong in thinking he disapproved of what has arisen between us… he was definitely glad. I don’t think you have ever realised the extent of affection & admiration he feels for you. His mind went back into the past as he talked of the days when you were at school together…

May be he has not at all the same kind of mental and spiritual kinship with you that I have—perhaps he never will have. But still the relationship may be closer than you imagine. I know you and your mother have always said that he has either nothing in him or else he conceals very well what he has. Will you not give him the benefit of the doubt and believe that the latter alternative is the true one–as I do?

Alas for poor Edward. Vera has no idea what he conceals so very well, but Roland might know, and it seems very possible that Mrs. Leighton does… when the time to discuss this part of Edward Brittain’s life I will check her book as well.

Back to Vera, who shows not quite but  almost, almost a hint of naughtiness.

…Of course I shall not mind how scrappy your letters are–I know they will be all that you can make them and when I get them whatever they are I shall be so glad. At least I am pleased the Censor will not see mine—so that I can give you a little of what perhaps you will want when you are out there–I don’t want to stop writing but I must because I am anxious for this to catch the post…

Goodbye–& best of love—



Rupert Brooke and the rest of his battalion reached Port Said today–since the abortive assault on the Dardanelles they had been at Lemnos–and disembarked. There was time to kill, and there will be shore leave. Not Athens, perhaps, or Byzantium restored–but give a fellow a few days to get around to some historical-architectural tourism…


Since it’s beautiful, here’s the entirety of the poem Edward Thomas wrote today, a century back, “A Tale”:

Here once flint walls,
Pump, orchard and wood pile stood.
Blue periwinkle crawls
From the lost garden down into the wood.

The flowerless hours
Of winter cannot prevail
To blight these other flowers,
Blue china fragments scattered, that tell the tale.


References and Footnotes

  1. Chronicle of Youth, 167.
  2. Letters from a Lost Generation, 63-4.

Henry Farnsworth in the Clink; Edward Thomas Sees Starry Light in a Simple Trap

Henry Farnsworth wrote home today, and once again Papa gets a different story than his mother and sister. Why is it that he was sent forward at night when his company was not? It would seem that he confides in his father–or does he only do this to reveal how hard-bitten he has become?

March 27, 1915

Dear Papa:

After writing so lengthily to Mother and Ellen, I was moved on at 5.30 a.m. to a new sector. To be honest, the letters were written from jail, where my row with the Sergeant had landed me, and I was sent forward with the other prisoners to reinforce the 3rd Company. In our new position the Germans are more active and there was continual firing almost all night, also considerable cannonading. Little damage was done, however.

After three days my company replaced the 3rd and I resumed my normal standing. I was of course a silly ass to allow matters to get in the state they did, where the first time I was caught with the slightest infraction I was given the maximum. However, this morning another man was punished and made a false and silly excuse, and the Captain made a reference to myself as one who, when caught, admitted the guilt and took the punishment in good spirit. So I don’t think the incident did any harm.

The afternoon my company arrived, the Germans let fall a flock of saucisson, huge bombs flung by a sort of modern catapult. They carry something like a hundred pounds, so people say, of explosive, and made a truly horrible explosion…

After five days in the trenches, we came back to our usual resting-place, rested yesterday, and are off again this afternoon for the trenches once more…

I cannot tell you how much I was touched by your telegraphing the money, especially after my own stupid and despicable actions. I reiterate that to have you pleased with my actions now is an undying joy! Also, it is getting warmer, and I like the life better.

With love to Mother,



Farnsworth is something of a mystery, and I’m not sure just what these “despicable” actions were. He was certainly a fool when, in the fall, he had fallen in with a bunch of dubious older pseudo-aristocrats and been cheated out of his money. That was pretty bad, but is that all there was to it? Impossible to know.

But if the son is blustering a bit, laying it on a bit thick (“despicable!”), then at least he is thankful. And as for Papa, he may have been horrified that his only son has fallen in with the rabblement of the Foreign Legion, disappointed at his failure to find another way forward, or proud of his decisiveness and willingness to suffer in the anti-German cause… all we know is that he has the good grace to signal approval of his son’s irrevocable action. But can he really be pleased that his reckless son is fighting under a foreign flag?


One more thing today–another Edward Thomas poem. The Wasp Trap, despite its rustic title and subject–he had observed the simple trap on a walk two days before–is more or less a metaphysical poem. (Four months a poet, and already the man can do more or less everything.) The glass jar, hung up to trap and drown wasps, becomes, in the moonlight, a star. It’s short–give it a read.

I refuse to go in for another hard-driving, it’s-a-war-poem reading on this one… there are too many ways to understand the light he invokes, and it mustn’t necessarily be seen as the glorious, deadly lure that attracts the humble, busy creature to his death.


References and Footnotes

  1. Letters of Henry Weston Farnsworth, 137-9.

Edward Thomas Treads a Future Path; Vera and Roland Write of Souls and Codes; Life is All Cocktails and Bridge for Patrick Shaw-Stewart

Edward Thomas wrote The Path today, a century back. It’s another poem that could stand well as a sole example of his achievement. It’s short and fairly simple, a blank verse narrative about a real path, one that he walked with his children to their school. But it’s not really simple, any more than the possibilities or a path are simple–especially the thematic possibilities. Not for nothing did Robert Macfarlane take Thomas on as the patron saint of The Old Ways, his meditation on paths and walking (a fine book, but beware: it will, of course, reveal Thomas’s future which is taboo here on acenturyback, where it is always only exactly a hundred years ago).

The poet’s sympathy is with the children who run along the path’s high banks, marking the ancient landscape with their exuberance, their urge to explore. For a moment we are in a good and pleasant place, parents smiling indulgently while children hallow the ground and fill the air with imagination-embroidered tales of whatever they see. There is a feel for the place–the beech, the yew, the chalk–and for the marks of human passage, as the feet of the children smooth and “silver” the path.

But the path has more going on (with) it, and less. The poem’s final lines run as follows:

                                        the eye
Has but the road, the wood that overhangs
And underyawns it, and the path that looks
As if it led on to some legendary
Or fancied place where men have wished to go
And stay; till, sudden, it ends where the wood ends.

It turns out to be a short path then, and something of a dead end, for all that it appeals to the children who scramble around and the tolerant grown-ups who walk alongside. Those who might wish to enter a real old wood, a wood of legend, enchantment, adventure–to stray beyond “the fields we know,” as Lord Dunsany will put it–are stymied. And these are not the children, who can go thither in their unfettered imagination–but “men.”

So is that it? A little bit of a downer? It’s nice to imagine this pretty road as something more mythical than it is, but let’s be real folks, the woods of England are no longer wild or wide?

No, I don’t think that’s it. If it were written later, as a sort of rebuke to the threatening-but-not-fatal mythic-English paths (like the ones that lead through The Old Forest or over the North Downs), well, perhaps then it might be: here is a real road, and there are no rangers of ancient lineage and spotless courage to guide you. But this isn’t a rejection of myth or fancy. It’s an assertion of present reality.

One finishes the poem, tentatively, perhaps. So one one retrace and re-read and–how can we have missed it, trench-obsessed as we are?

In the first line, the high bank of the sunken road is called a “parapet;” a few lines later, moss “invades” it. This isn’t looking ahead to The Hobbit, it’s looking ahead to the trenches.

There are dismal woods enough–dead ends in several senses–already held by the British Army. But if Thomas is a prophet here, he’s a prophet of other sunken roads in chalky soils, roads that do not so much wind as zig-zag, not for traveling but traversing, on their way up to High Wood, and Mametz Wood, and other places we will come to in the summer and autumn of next year.


Vera Brittain penned a fervid diary entry today, a century back, in which Roland’s departure, her reading in Plato, and the religion of her upbringing have fermented into a new belief that suffering is the key to the perfectibility of the soul. She’s been doing a lot of this, but I will still excerpt it briefly, because the train of thought is now leading her somewhere new: perhaps the woman-left-behind need not be entirely passive, and might engage with suffering, to a purpose.

Friday March 26th

…ever since Roland departed & the first real trouble I have known dawned upon me, I have done nothing but think & think & think…  To-day I worked out the problem of suffering & the soul. “Redemption … is worked out by the soul itself with suffering.” For when the soul–the Perfect–grows, the Imperfect through which it expresses itself suffers & is rent with the anguish of its limitation…

Only the soul, the Eternal Element diffused through all his being, is of avail…

I envy people who nurse now–surely truth is to be found in such experience, even as it is embodied in all elemental things. I would like the stern labour for love’s sake, for surely the soul grows thereby. I wish in the summer vacation I could somehow combine nursing & college work.

I think I shall try if the war is not over.[1]


Roland, meanwhile, wrote to her today as well.[2] He thanks her for the gift of a pen and explains that their departure for France has been delayed. There’s an interesting bit about censorship, and how they have arranged to circumvent it:

(I have just received lengthy orders regarding censorship. I have to censor all the letters written by the 60 odd men in my platoon; while my own are inspected by my company commander, and then forwarded unfastened to one of the censors-in-chief at headquarters. He stamps all letters and sends them off.) I have not forgotten our arrangement about putting small dots—in pencil—under certain letters, that you may know where I am. Your letters to me, of course, will not be tampered with at all…

You had better not send any letters out to me, though, until you know for certain that I have just got to France. I will scrawl you something to let you know as soon as I can. And you will not mind, will you, if most of my letters are only scrappy?

…It is nearly 2 o’clock and I have to get up early. But I cannot help thinking of you tonight. I have just been wondering what it win feel like to be twenty tomorrow.–Shall I feel so very old? And yet we are both only children still–children who have dreamt each the dreams of a child, and meeting at the gateway of a fairer garden tremble lest after all their dreams come true.

Goodnight, dear. Love and Hope.



Finally today, a brief excerpt from a rather jauntier letter–this from Patrick Shaw-Stewart, Friend of Rupert and RND officer now sailing the Eastern Mediterranean after the first aborted attempt to force the Dardanelles.

…this voyage; despite the fact that most of it has been stationary, is pure joy to me. Heaps of books and bridge and cocktails, and not too much campaigning; and it is particularly lucky to have Oc Asquith and Rupert Brooke, and the musician Denis Browne, in the battalion, as they form a sort of nucleus for human intercourse which in the New Army, the Lord knows, one might easily miss entirely.[4]

Delightful. What could go wrong?


References and Footnotes

  1. Chronicle of Youth, 166.
  2. Or perhaps tomorrow, depending on how he chose to date a letter completed at 2 AM.
  3. Letters from a Lost Generation, 62-3.
  4. B. Shaw-Stewart, Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 123.

Behind Neuve Chapelle with the Nursing Sister; Edward Thomas Writes of Love and Easter Rambles; Vera Brittain Thinks Herself Into Misery

In England, two of our writers get on with it–“it” now increasingly signifying “not being there.”

But first, France, where the Nursing Sister, writing in the first real lull she’s had in two weeks, speaks for the wounded. It’s been only two weeks since the debacle at Neuve Chapelle, two weeks that she and thousands of others have spent cleaning and repairing its human wreckage.

Thursday, March 25th.

9 p.m., R.— There are three trains waiting here, or rather at S., which means a blessed lull for the people in the firing line.

There was a day or two after Neuve Chapelle when the number of wounded overflowed the possibilities of “collection”; the stretcher-bearers were all hit and the stretchers were all used, and there were not enough medical officers to cope with the numbers (extra ones were hurried up from the Base Hospitals very quickly), and if you wanted to live you had to walk or crawl, or stay behind and die.

We had a Canadian on who told me last night that he should never forget the stream of wounded dragging themselves along that road from Neuve Chapelle to Estaires who couldn’t be found room for in the motor ambulances. Two trains picked them up there, and there were many deaths on the trains and in the motor ambulances. The “Evacuation” was very thorough and rapid to the bases and to the ships, but in any great battle involving enormous casualties on both sides there must be some gaps you can’t provide for.[1]


Edward Thomas wrote a love song,[2] today, and he wrote to Eleanor Farjeon–under separate cover.

25.iii 15

Steep, Petersfield

My dear Eleanor

Thank you. I have some more too.

Farjeon is being thanked either for typing up his poetry, or commenting on it, or submitting it to magazines under pseudonyms–or all three.

It has perhaps become a really bad habit as I walk up the hill [from his house to his writing cottage] and I can sometimes hardly wait to light my fire. I am glad you find some things that you like…

I wish I could cycle over at Easter but if I do go away I think it will be then and I should go west. Still, I might, and I am not fixing anything yet, and If I do the weather will intervene. I am still no walker except on smooth roads. But I hope you will be quite well by then. The weather had been tempting and tiring.  We have done a lot of gardening, and never had the ground in better order so early…

I have a number of things to do in town, but I think I can see you on Wednesday or Thursday–next week that is: and I will write again when I know…

Yours ever

Edward Thomas

I hope Eastaway gets the only rejected MSS at Fellow Rd; he gets them steadily.

Farjeon remarks “He did indeed, and not a single acceptance.”

The next paragraph, obliquely answering the reader’s question about this planned meeting in London, quietly begins “The next letter is written after Easter…”[3]


And Vera Brittain:

Thursday March 25th

I made my head ache thinking out spiritual & intellectual problems all day. There is light–but so much darkness is all round that only a very little of the path is illuminated. I longed passionately for intercourse with the only mind that has ever been in harmony with my mind, with the only spirit that has ever walked with mine–Roland’s. I thought all day about him too, wondering if he has really departed & England holds him no more…[4]


References and Footnotes

  1. Diary of a Nursing Sister, available here.
  2. Spoiler alert--mild, but overlapping: this lyric of Thomas's--Thomas loved folk song almost as much as he loved poetry--will one day be set to music by our composer, Ivor Gurney.
  3. Farjeon, Edward Thomas, 127-8.
  4. Chronicle of Youth, 165-6.

Edward Thomas: the Young Poet Must Be Vain; Alan Seeger Trumpets Martial Glory; Vera Brittain Pines for Romantic Bliss; Julian Grenfell Discovers Spring in Flanders

Alan Seeger, the elder and slightly more poetical of our two young American Legionnaires, wrote a letter today for publication in the New York Sun. He’s canny enough to throw a brief head-fake before getting down to the real business of the letter: an old fashioned appeal to military Romanticism. Much has endured into the war’s first Spring–and much will survive the war, until the “disenchanted” survivors wrest control of the national memory. This, though, is the sort of stuff that will be harder and harder to believe in as the war drags on.

On the Aisne, March 24, 1915.

Among so many hours in the soldier’s life that modern warfare makes monotonous and unromantic there come those too when the heart expands with accesses of enthusiasm that more than compensate for all his hardships and suffering. Such was the afternoon of the review we passed the other day before the General of our army corps.

All the morning in the hayloft of our cantonment we labored cleaning from rifle and equipment, clothes and person, their evidence of the week in the trenches from which we had just returned. At noon under the most beautiful of spring skies we marched out of the village two battalions strong.

In contrast with the sinister lifelessness and suspense that reigns along the front, here, as soon as one is out of the zone of artillery fire, all is bustle and busy operations. Along the roads were the camps of the engineers and depots filled with material for defence and military works piles of lumber, pontoon bridges in sections, infinite rolls of barbed wire, thousands of new picks and shovels neatly laid out, that raised groans from the men as they passed, for Caesar’s remark about the spade having won him more than the sword holds curiously true in the Gallic wars of today, at least so far as our experience has gone…

For fifteen kilometers or so we marched back over hill and vale, singing the chansons de route of the French soldier along poplar lined canals where the big péniches [a flat sort of river or canal boat] are stalled, through picturesque villages where the civilians, returned to their reconquered territory, came to their doors and greeted us as we passed…

On the sunny plateau we were joined by the two relief battalions of the regiment that holds the sector to our left, and all were drawn up on the plain in columns of sections by four, a fine spectacle. We had not waited long when the General appeared down the road. He was superbly mounted, was followed by a dragoon bearing the tricolor on his lance and an escort of about a dozen horsemen. Four thousand bayonets flashed in the air as he rode by. Then the band struck up the march of the Second Chasseurs and under the mounted figure, silhouetted on a little knoll, we paraded by to its stirring strains…

Come on boys, and join the Legion! If America is really going to sit out, then you’ll miss the grandest thing going…

This is unabashed propaganda. The next bit I’ll skip: Seeger relates a friend’s tales of the action on a more contested section of the front, adding a frisson of approaching bombs and pitter-pattering bullets to his tale before returning to the shining bayonets.

After noting that the French soldiers sing songs dating to 1792 (when Germans, among others, marched against revolutionary France, and the first real People’s army began winning its great victories), Seeger rises to a stirring conclusion:

May our hearts in the hour when the supreme demand is to be made on us be fired with the same enthusiasm that filled them as we stood there on the sunny plateau listening to the Battle Hymn of the Army of the Rhine!

All were in high spirits as we marched home that evening. We took a short cut, cross country, for it was already getting dark enough to traverse without danger the field where we passed a while exposed to the distant artillery. The last glow of sunset shone down the gray valley, illumining with a brazen lustre the windings of the river as we tramped back over the pontoon bridge and into cantonment again. Something breathed unmistakably of spring and the eve of great events.

And that night in our candle-lit loft we uncorked bottles of bubbling champagne. Again the strains of the noble hymn broke spontaneously from our lips. And clinking our tin army cups, with the spell of the afternoon still strong upon us, we raised them there together, and we too drank to “the day.”[1]


What would Vera Brittain say to all of that? She’s not, of course, completely opposed to the lure of honor and glory, but… it hardly matters. Roland wants it very much.

Wednesday March 24th

After tea a sort of restlessness came over me which urged me to go into Corbar Woods & stand by the tree beneath which Roland & I sat nearly a year ago, & where first we began to feel that interest in each other which has led to so much. As I stood there, the place was hallowed by the memory of his presence, so that even the bareness of the tree-trunks & the greyness of the distance which showed between them could not prevent my soul from making itself felt in a vague aspiring, and an intense spiritual consciousness of love & ital inner life striving for self-expression.

I felt again keenly the desire to be able to stand alone–the longing for a fuller realisation of my spiritual being & for the perfecting of the intellectual instrument through which it expresses and reveals itself. So strongly, as I gazed at the lonely hills behind me & the faint gleam of red sunset sky in the greyness above, did I feel the element of Unity in me & in that upon which I was looking that I knelt on the damp ground beneath the tree and prayed to that omnipotent Being that Roland might return. Then I walked slowly away, intending on April 20th to revisit the place.[2]

Good God! Is it youth? The cloying breath coughed out in the death rattle of the Long Nineteenth Century? Or is it just fear and death and joy and love and God and country?

It’s as if the blank-faced angels of European cultural history have assembled two-by-two, handing all the good little girls their pair of dolls, veiled bride and black-trousered groom, and all the good little boys their toy soldiers, bayonets a-twinkle. A few years more and the boys will be marching about self-seriously, deep in their war games, while the girls sigh and plot their way to the heights and depths of careening romance.

And then a few more years, and here they are, bright and expensively educated, in love or in the trenches, doin’ what comes naturally.

I know that many of you with an abiding interest in World War One know what will come, in the war and in its writing. But make like you don’t–isn’t there a desperate need for wisdom? For testament after testament, and a new poetry of terrible experience? Or should we sigh and acknowledge that we are a foolish species among many, driven to meaningless paroxysms of love and violence?


Julian Grenfell sent another gossip-and-parcel-receipts letter today, but he closed with news of Spring in Flanders:

We have had a wonderful boiling hot Spring week, with all the birds shouting. It makes me feel terribly restless! Goodbye Mummy darling. I wish I could see you. What urgent “business” reason can I give to get another week’s leave[?]


A rather abrupt ending for the restless Grenfell. But the cavalry are still being kept out of the trenches, and he has seen no action in many weeks…


And, finally, out and about in England, Edward Thomas was for the birds today as well, writing Two Pewits as well as another letter to Walter de la Mare. It would be no exaggeration to say that, for the last few weeks the poetry-writing has been going as well as the poetry-presenting is not. Not only are newspapers and magazines turning him down, but Thomas–long known as both a good friend and a just critic of poetry–is finding difficulty gaining sympathetic hearings in return.

Three days ago he had sent a sheaf of verses to de la Mare–an established poet–with the coy-but-obvious announcement that they were the work of a young poet (young in poetry, but not a young man) who wished to remain nameless. He is writing steadily and–he’s sure of it!–very well indeed. And he is not in the mood for polite deferrals.

Steep, 24 March 1915
My dear de la Mare,

The young poet must be much vainer or more tricky than you are used to. He can’t imagine how he will stand waiting a week or how then he could stand hearing he has gone wrong over metre sometimes & yet (apparently) not always. But he does think you may be right because he agrees with you in liking those 4.* He wishes you could prepare him for the horrible truth (it must be horrible) beforehand. Keep the verses till then by all means…

Are you free on Tuesday evening, or on Wednesday either for lunch or supper? Or tea on Tuesday? Send me a card soon to say which suits or what other time suits, for I might be still up on Thursday.

Thomas then thanks de la Mare for helping secure permissions for his forthcoming This England anthology, but makes it clear–an awkward matter, considering that de la Mare has just won both a prestigious appointment and a lifetime pension, and at 42 is under less patriotic pressure anyway–the his money situation is still so dire as to provide a strong motivation for immediate enlistment. The bitter humor does not soften the sense of desolation.

The Proverbs seem dead but still can’t find a publisher to pay funeral expenses, & I believe nearly all London publishers have been invited. They prefer Belgians as objects of charity, so that if I can get my ankle really mended I shall have to try to serve my country after all. The gardener next door has just been called up & when I heard him talking about it I felt worse than I have done yet.

Yours ever

P.S. I expect I did ask you not to mention the verses to anyone & told you I was sending them about under another na[me]

Then there’s a post-script, connected to the asterisk, above: “*But then the poor fellow likes the others too.”[4]

There’s the rub: Thomas has girded his loins and started sending his poetry out into the cruel, distracted world. He began with those friends, like Eleanor Farjeon, that he hoped, perhaps, would be most sympathetic. But although he is a “young poet,” he is a wily and stubborn old critic, hard-headed about literature and sure of what he likes. So he’s not taking well to criticism, and has already refused the suggestions of several other friends.

Most awkwardly, he showed some of his poems to W.H. Davies, and Davies promptly announced that they were clearly the work of Robert Frost. And Frost, of course–the one poet who understands Thomas’s work, who shares his point of view, and who knows that, while some of Thomas’s poems bear the influence of Frost, so too does Frost bear the influence of Thomas–is now across an ocean. So Thomas seems increasingly to face the choice of changing his poems to suit his readers–smoothing out the rhythms, lightening the tone, sacrificing complexity–or of sacrificing recognition, and the reward of seeing them in print.

He knew, increasingly, that he was a poet of power and subtlety–greater than all the names here, save his friend Frost–and we know, or have learned to think so. But the others, you see, hadn’t figured this out yet. An apt poetic analogue, perhaps, for the backward-looking and unimaginative generals now confronting the tactical problems of modern trench warfare…


References and Footnotes

  1. Letters and Diary of Alan Seeger, 75-82.
  2. Chronicle of Youth, 165.
  3. Julian Grenfell, Soldier and Poet, 274-5.
  4. Poet to Poet, 201-2.

Edward Thomas Sows Perfection, While Thomas Hardy Writes to… Him

Edward Thomas has been busy of late, inspired perhaps by the arrival of spring, or by a visit from his poet friend John Freeman. Yesterday he began The Barn and The Down, and today he not only finished it but also wrote the gorgeous Sowing and a sort of belated birthday lyric, March the Third (titled after his own birthday).

“March the Third” is certainly Thomas-being-Thomas, but in a lighter vein than usual. It’s spring now, officially, but he reaches back twenty days to describe spring’s harbingers–faced with the full bloom of Spring, he prefers dwelling in anticipation rather than glorying in the present. The poem’s female speaker announces that this will be the day when the birds begin to sing “‘Twixt dawn and dusk, from half past six/ To half past six, never unheard.”

The birdsong, then, is mixed with the sound of church bells, and Thomas, doubter and naturalist, reassigns the “holiness” from the bells to the birds. The poem, I’m afraid, chimes on a bit bellishly, and ends lamely–Edward Thomas is not the right poet to go five stanzas and conclude–convincingly–that “we know how lucky we are.”

But Sowing is very, very good. Read it! Instead of the predictable “spring is coming and we are happy and the birds sing all day” we have one brief hour, meticulously observed, musically rendered, and yet somehow still true to the rhythms of speech, in the best Frostian manner.

…the hour
Between the far
Owl’s chuckling first soft cry
And the first star.

It’s a good hour, and four lines later a soft rain comes to close a good day, “the early seeds/ All safely sown.”

It’s lovely, this poem. Perfect. In, at least, the grammatical sense: something is recently past, and complete. Only knowing Thomas’s ever-unsettled mind would we suspect–and knowing, too, that he had just strained toward the happiness of “March the Third”–that there is something ominous in this contentment. The seeds are sown, but what seeds, dare we ask–his three children? his first few dozen poems? his thirty-seven years? And the night is coming now, and there has been as yet no happy hopeful thought of sprout or bloom or harvest.

Is that asking too much, to see the effect of the next day’s–the next season’s–sun? Or should we be pleased and perfect in the moment, with none of the future, the conditional, or the subjunctive?


Now here’s an interesting crossing-of-paths. Edward Thomas had written not all that long ago to Thomas Hardy, surely England’s greatest living poet (although certainly more thought of then as the last of the great Victorian novelists), asking if he would allow some of his poems to be printed in This England, the quietly patriotic anthology that Thomas was now completing. The grand old man has been slow in writing back, and Thomas had heard a rumor that Hardy bore him a grudge over an article he had written that cast Hardy as a peasant. But that was praise, more or less, from Thomas, and Hardy–who might also claim to be one of the only poets as deeply identified with the rural past of England as Thomas himself–might not have ever taken offense. And yet–does today’s letter seem a little cool?

Max Gate, Dorchester. 23; 3; 1915

My dear Sir:

Pray choose whichever you like best for your purpose. I am unable to criticize your selection, as I do not know the principle you are following. If your book is to represent a mood throughout—that mood being a buoyant one—they are well-chosen probably: if to illustrate the idiosyncrasy of each writer, I am not sure that they are so good as would be, say, “When I set out for Lyonnesse” (Satires of Circumstance), or “To meet or otherwise” (same volume), or “The Ballad Singer” (Time’s Laughingstocks).

By the way, there are two Sergeants’ songs—”When Lawyers Strive” (written nearly 40 years ago!), and “Budmouth Dears” (from The Dynasts Part III, Act II. Sc. II)—better suited to present times, perhaps than the other.

Yours very truly

Thomas Hardy.[1]

Hard to say. But Hardy does offer a number of poems, and three will be included[2]–along with two by “Edward Eastaway”–in the anthology. I hope Edward Thomas sent him a nice note back…


References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 87.
  2. I think. That the anthology did not solve Thomas's money problems is very clear from how rare it is now--it's painful even to search the one version mysteriously half-available on the wretched/handy "books" section of a certain omnivorous web-browser-cum-corporate-monolith. I've found a library version, however, and will consult it soon.

Henry Williamson Rides a Bullet Hole Toward a Commission; Dorothie Feilding on Neuve Chapelle; Vera Receives an Ominous Gift; Happy Birthday Billy Congreve

Dorothie Feilding joins the list of those not far from the front who have figured out that Neuve Chapelle was a bloody failure. In fact, she uses language almost identical to Julian Grenfell’s of a few days ago.

March 22nd 1915

Maman chere–

I am at the bottom of my bed this morning and quite lazy…

We are awfully short for cars but your tame millionaire gave us another small ‘thou’ too for two ambulances to come immediately from London.

What a horrible thing that endless [casualty] list was. Thank God Tubby got left out of that. I am afraid we didn’t accomplish all we wanted to either or enough to warrant that ghastly sacrifice of men. The latter was greatly due to our artillery not shooting accurately, only this is private of course, don’t say it about unless you have already heard it published.

Our gunners fired a good deal on our own men & 3 times when they were supposed to have cleared the ground & the wire entanglements for an attack shot too short with the result our men rushed right up to the entanglements before they found they weren’t swept away & had to retire losing a terrible amount of men in the retreat from the Germans’ fire.

It’s a ghastly thing anyway.

They say the Germans must have lost nearly as many men though, although we were the attacking party.[1]

Here things are much the same. The French taking a few yards here & there. Just enough to ‘kill the German’s pride’…

We haven’t been shelled once in Furnes since I’ve been back. It’s so damn healthy we don’t know ourselves…

yr loving Diddles.[2]


Henry Williamson is still home on leave today, a century back. But he has decided that he will try for a commission: he has never fit in with the other men in his battalion, he worries that he has disgraced himself with cowardice or shirking, and he hopes that the transition from private to officer will delay his return to the front–or so we can infer from his later writing, especially in his fictionalization of his own experience in the A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight sequence of novels.

That this is a plausible line of military self-advance is due mainly to three things: the continuing expansion of the New Army, the assumptions of the British class system (i.e. that a callow and alternately over-confident and self-doubting youth of 19 will make a good officer because he went to a good school, and speaks in a certain way), and the fact that so many young men of this officer class were so eager to get into the army in the previous Summer and Fall that they enlisted as private soldiers.

And Williamson’s plan will work–but not until April. But he had decided months ago[3] to accelerate certain aspects of his fictional alter ego’s experiences–probably, at first, to get him into the battle of Ypres in November. He sticks with this pattern now, and we read in A Fox Under My Cloak that Phillip receives his lieutenant’s commission–bearing the signature of King George V–“the Twenty second day of March 1915 in the Fifth Year of Our Reign.”

Although frightened and uncertain, and motivated at least as much by fear of an imminent return to the front as by any notion of higher service (or even higher status), Phillip pulls off a fairly dashing bluff. Snapping out salutes copied from an old Sergeant-Major, he acts the proper soldier–and makes sure that each of several successive officers see his bullet-torn great coat. These are older men who have either stayed in England at desk jobs or returned already from the front, and each in turn is moved by this apparent talisman of danger-avoided to pass on Phillip’s application. It helps that he strategically changes the spot where the near-miss occurred, citing different battles likely to be familiar to the officer in question.

Humor is not among Williamson’s strength as a novelist, and the intensity of his love/hatred/pride/pity in his fictional self rarely allows the reader to get a clear shot at whether Phillip’s predicament is meant to be pathetic or risible. But we are meant to chuckle at how he obtains the final, crucial recommendation: it’s the old colonel, the Oxford Romanist who had brought out a model Roman catapult to the trenches. Phillip puts himself in the colonel’s line of vision, presents his bullet-scarred front, and compliments the useless (and, by Williamson, misunderstood) contraption. A few minutes later he’s in a taxi to the war office, and the commission is in the works.[4]


When Vera Brittain came downstairs this morning, a century  back, she

found a registered envelope on my plate, addressed in Roland’s writing. I quietly moved it to my knee at the time and opened it when I was by myself.

It contained a brooch–just the kind I like best & should have expected him to choose. It was made of one large amethyst–my favourite stone–set in gold & surrounded by tiny pearls. I like them best because they are full of depth and light and a soft purple intensity so that they almost seem to have a soul…  With it he had enclosed a card with his name on it, & written on the back “In Memoriam. March 18th 1915.” Both the words & the colour of the stone were symbolic of mourning–& yet, like a good omen, the amethyst was full of light. I held it up in front of the fire for a moment & the red glow reflected in it made it look like a great drop of blood.

I bought him his fountain pen this morning–I only wished it could have been something better, but I suppose anything not merely useful would be little to the purpose in the place where he is going. Then I started to write him what will probably be the final letter before he leaves England…

Today, then, she wrote to Roland before turning to her diary. So let’s read the letter:

Buxton, 22 March 1915

I do not know how to thank you–but perhaps you can imagine a little how I felt when I opened your letter this morning, and will not require of me to express it in words. I can never say how much it means that you should still have thought about giving me something…

How did you know I liked amethysts best? They are so full of fight & depth that I feel as if I were looking into someone’s soul… I shall look at it so often—not that I require any outward token to make me think of you, or to keep living the memory of Thursday night–but I can spare no remembrance, and this will make one more…

And now I suppose, soon after you read this, you will indeed be departing–going to that land of sorrow & strife where we must trust you to Time–& whatever it is that is God…

It shall not be goodbye–it cannot be. I send you at our parting all that is most precious to me too–the best of love and hope.

So—till we meet again—au revoir.


Vera is putting her pen where her sentiments have been, in a way–she attends to Roland first, and only then goes about her own business. Back to the diary:

I tried to work to-day, & with some success, realising that if I could not feel interested in my work I must do it without feeling interested.

Such is the only form of courage I can practise.

But there are distractions–and reminders of the sort of ordeals that may be in store for her:

Our housemaid is very troubled about her young man who is at the front in the 1st Sherwood Foresters. She has not heard anything of him for three weeks, & to-day a parcel she sent him was returned–without however any intimation of his death. They may of course merely have lost sight of him for the time being but it does look rather bad; if anything like that happened to me with regard to Roland I don’t know what I should do…

News of casualties continues to pour in–still the results of Neuve Chapelle & St. Eloi. The lists seem to grow longer every day; it feels impossible to believe that anyone who goes out there can ever return. And yet I suppose one must do the hard thing–not give way to despair & try to hope for the best.[6]


So must Billy Congreve. It’s his birthday today, and moving with the freedom that is a staff officer’s perquisite, he went to Armentières for a celebratory tea, and from there to Bailleul. In Bailleul he visited his close friend Reggie Hargreaves, who had been in the St. Eloi attack on March 15th. Hargreaves had been shot twice and shattered by shrapnel, then survived a day and a night in No Man’s Land. He now lay unconscious in hospital, his wounds gangrenous, a foot and a hand already taken by the doctors.


References and Footnotes

  1. This, by the way, is nearly true, but only because the Germans decided to counter-attack, and thus lost heavily on the tactical offensive.
  2. Lady Under Fire, 55-6.
  3. Amusingly, I did not do that on purpose. Reading over this post I realized that I have conflated the time of the writing of the novel--significantly later on, to say the least--with the time in which it is set. Williamson decided when he was writing the 1914 sections of the novel to put Phillip in a different unit, one that made it to the front more quickly than he did...
  4. A Fox Under My Cloak, 111-143.
  5. Letters from a Lost Generation, 61-2.
  6. Chronicle of Youth, 164-5.